A napkin, a pingpong ball and a Starbucks cup went up in flames somewhere on Baylor University’s campus sometime in 2016.
Whether the incidents led to arrests or any other kind of university discipline was not of primary concern to Shelley Deats. She just needed to know if the reports came from Baylor-owned property.
The result of that knowledge? The university reported three cases of arson to the federal government in its most recent set of crime statistics each college is required to submit annually under the Clery Act.
“It’s all fun and games until it goes in the Clery report,” said Deats, Baylor’s Clery compliance manager.
The Clery Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 and named after Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University student who was raped and murdered in her on-campus dorm in 1986. The incident prompted outcry about how colleges disclose campus crime rates. The law now requires schools to submit the number of crime reports they receive from campus property, alongside comprehensive policies on campus safety.
The cases of arson Baylor reported illustrate the nuances of reporting requirements under the Clery Act, which some describe as a transparency measure in the context of consumer protection. Deats said she looks to follow both the letter and the spirit of the law.
Baylor this year brought on Margolis Healy, a higher education compliance consulting firm, to review its Clery practices. The hire was sparked by a U.S. Department of Education review of Baylor’s crime reporting practices. Baylor continues to cooperate with the federal investigation, Deats said.
She said Margolis Healy is reviewing seven years worth of crime statistics as part of its work at Baylor.
“We’re going to be thorough in that analysis to make sure Baylor is not only doing what they’re supposed to be doing now, but that they did what they were supposed to do back then,” said Deats, who has held the role since 2015. “And if they didn’t, let’s fix it. It just made sense that (Margolis Healy) would go back and look at previous years’ numbers. In all fairness, there wasn’t a full-time Clery person. This stuff gets complicated.”
Clery reports are often compiled with help from consultants like Margolis Healy and with guidance documents from the federal government, said Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University College of Law in DeLand, Florida.
“I still think when the Office for Civil Rights comes knocking on any of the civil rights measures, whether it’s disability, Clery or Title IX, the one thing that they’re looking for is to see that you’ve got embedded compliance processes that are functional, and to see you’re attempting due diligence in good faith,” Lake said. “That matters a lot.”
Penn State University was fined about $2.4 million in 2016 for Clery Act violations in the wake of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s child abuse arrest. Lake called it “the mother of all Clery fines.”
To ensure compliance and avoid fines, Deats said her job is to “review everything,” including police reports and forms from the Title IX office. She is also in frequent contact with hundreds of designated campus security authorities.
Baylor recorded 11 on-campus reports of rape in 2016, 23 in 2015 and six in 2014. Baylor recorded no sexual assaults between 2009 and 2011, two in 2012 and six in 2013.
“I don’t think it’s an accurate depiction to say, ‘Oh my goodness, danger spiked at Baylor,’ ” Deats said. “For me, on a positive note, that means that education spiked at Baylor. And many of those reports were late reports from two or three years ago, and that just means to me that we got through to some people and that they came forward and that we could help them.”
Lake said universities almost routinely see upticks in crime reporting, particularly related to Title IX, once prevention and intervention programs are implemented.
“You get this false negative where it looks like, ‘Oh my gosh, we started to do this and things suddenly got worse,’ ” he said. “The reality was a lot of this stuff was hiding in the closet and it just wasn’t coming out. It was there all along, but it just wasn’t being reported.”
Accounting for variations in campus layouts and geography means it can be difficult to compare final crime report statistics between universities, Deats said.
“I feel like whatever number we end with at the end of the year, that is a person we were able to help,” she said. “No matter how high or how low that number is, we’re doing what we can do. Because we aren’t stopping crimes from happening, we’re just making sure people know that there’s help, that we care and that they know how to move forward in their life.”